Frequently Asked Questions from Volunteer Attorneys
Instructional videos on how to register and how to take questions on FLA are available on the ABA website:
How does Virginia.freelegalanswers.org work?
Virginia.freelegalanswers.org is based on the walk-in clinic or dial-a-lawyer model where clients request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue from a volunteer lawyer. Lawyers provide information and basic legal advice without any expectation of long-term representation.
Users who meet eligibility (see Eligibility below) sign the use agreement, create a username and password, post a request for legal advice information and provide facts about their case that will help the lawyer answer the question. Users will be asked to select a category (such as “housing” or “debt”) that best describes their question. The lawyer may ask for additional information before responding to the user’s request, but the user will have a choice to respond to that request or not. Users' name and county, but no other identifying information will be shared with the volunteer lawyer. Users are informed that there is no guarantee that a question will be answered. If a question is not answered within 30 days, the user will receive an email from the website administrator instructing them to seek assistance elsewhere. The user will also be provided with a list of additional resources.
Lawyers who would like to participate must create a username and password, provide contact information and their Virginia State Bar number, sign the lawyer use agreement, and request approval from the website administrator. Before the lawyer’s account is activated, the website administrator checks to ensure the lawyer is licensed and in good standing with the Virginia State Bar. [NOTE – If the lawyer previously submitted the Attorney Interest Form from the VSB website then their disciplinary records have already been reviewed and the site administrator will provide the authorization once the attorney completes their registration.] Once a lawyer has been approved by the website administrator, the lawyer receives an email notification and can begin answering user questions.
Lawyers may log in at any time to review a list of user questions and select the one(s) they want to answer. Lawyers will use the categories provided by the user (such as “housing” or “debt”) to help determine which questions they would like to answer. A lawyer will have the opportunity to read the full question before deciding to take it from the list and answer it. Once a lawyer takes a question from the list, the lawyer has 3 days to answer it. Lawyers will be allowed to ask follow up questions if they need additional information in order to answer the user’s question. The lawyer’s identity is not revealed to the user unless the lawyer decides to do so (unless your state required the site to identify volunteers). Once a lawyer answers a question, the user will be asked to accept the answer or send a follow up question to the lawyer.
Lawyers will be able to view a log of questions they have answered.
Who is eligible to use Virginia.freelegalanswers.org?
Eligibility for use of Virginia.freelegalanswers.org is limited to the following:
- The user must have household income less than 250% of the federal poverty level (unless your state required a different amount);
- The user may not have liquid assets exceeding $10,000 in value (this includes checking and savings account balances, as well as the value of any stocks or bonds);
- The user may not be incarcerated;
- The user may not request assistance with criminal law matters.
Users must provide their name, county, and zip code in order to request advice.
Users agree to post no more than 5 legal questions per year on 3 different topics. They can follow-up with an attorney on each question as many times as the attorney and user choose to do so.
What kinds of lawyers should participate?
All lawyers are welcome! While there are certain types of legal questions that regularly come up at legal clinics, we need lawyers with different areas of expertise and practice to volunteer. We hope the website will appeal to lawyers who want to give back but have been unable to participate in traditional pro bono work due to family obligations, schedule or geographic location. We also hope to engage lawyers who already provide pro bono and are willing to give more of their time to those who need it.
What happens if a lawyer cannot answer a user’s question?
A lawyer might be unable to answer a user’s question for a number of reasons. Some examples might be a conflict of interest, user’s failure to respond to lawyer requests for additional information or the question is determined to fall outside the lawyer’s area of expertise. Lawyers will have access to brochures on various areas of substantive law to help them answer questions. If a lawyer determines that (s)he cannot answer a question, the lawyer may place the question back into the queue so that another volunteer lawyer may try to assist the user. If a lawyer takes a question and doesn't respond within 3 days, the question will automatically return to open questions queue.
What type of relationship exists between the client and lawyer?
When a user submits a question and receives an answer from a lawyer, there will be a lawyer/client relationship formed between that client and the lawyer who responds. That relationship, however, will be limited in scope and duration as described in the use agreements for both users and lawyers. The representation will be limited to providing an answer to the legal question and will not involve any continuing representation of the client beyond the act of providing such an answer. The lawyer will provide short-term, limited legal services to a client (the eligible user of this site) without expectation by either the lawyer or the client (the eligible user of this site) that the lawyer will provide continuing representation in the matter. Both the eligible users and lawyers must consent to the limited nature of this relationship both as to scope and duration as indicated when they accept the terms of the use agreement. Eligible users and lawyers who do not accept the terms of the use agreement will not be allowed access to the site.
How do lawyers check for conflicts of interest?
Under Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct 1.2, 1.7, 1.18, 6.1 and 6.5, because of the pro bono publico nature of the limited scope representation provided through Virginia.freelegalanswers.org and because of the involvement of the Virginia State Bar (VSB) as the administrator, the general rules for lawyers as to conflicts of interest do not apply to lawyers’ participation in Virginia.freelegalanswers.org. Instead, the only conflicts of interest that would preclude a lawyer from answering a question for an eligible user of Virginia.freelegalanswers.org are conflicts of interest that the lawyer actually knows of at the time that they view a client’s question. This means that the possibility exists, and the clients agree that they understand, that a lawyer who answers a question, or another lawyer with whom they practice in a firm, may actually be representing other parties with an interest in the question. The user’s name will be provided to the lawyer. The user will also be asked to provide the name of the opposing party. Accordingly, with this information, the lawyer can make sure not to answer the question if the lawyer knows that (s)he would have a conflict of interest. However, the possibility exists, and the clients agree that they understand, that a lawyer who answers a question, may work with another lawyer or at a firm that may actually be representing other parties with an interest in the question.
Links to Key Rules, Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct -
What about professional liability insurance coverage?
Volunteer lawyers who provide brief advice and counsel via the website will be covered by professional liability insurance provided through the National Legal Aid & Defender Association Insurance Program. If an issue of malpractice arises, the VSB can trace each answered question back to the attorney who answered it.
Is there a confidentiality issue with client information/lawyer advice being housed on the internet?
This site is designed to insure client privacy. Since the web program is administered via email through a platform that limits access based on a screening, confidentiality will be maintained since only the website administrator has access to content between a client and a lawyer. Information available to the website administrator and the lawyer responding to a client request shall remain confidential, subject to the limitations of the Privacy/Confidentiality Policy. However, client requests for information and the response of the lawyers participating in Virginia.freelegalanswers.org may be maintained in a database for review in order to measure the effectiveness of the project. Steps will be taken to maintain the security of this database and it will only be utilized by the administrator but an absolute guarantee of security is not possible when using the internet and internet based systems.
For each visitor to the Webpage the web server automatically recognizes only the consumer domain name. This is the information that is collected for statistical purposes.
Aggregate information is collected on the pages consumers’ access or visit on this website.
The information collected is used to improve the content of the Web page and is not shared with other organizations for commercial purposes. Information may be disclosed when legally required at the request of government authorities conducting an investigation, to verify or enforce compliance with the policies governing our website and applicable laws or to protect against misuses or unauthorized use of our website.
Navigating the Website and Selecting Questions to Answer
When your account has been approved by the website administrator, you will receive a notification email. To get started you will go to Virginia.freelegalanswers.org. and select “Sign In” at the top right side of your screen. After you enter your username (which is your email address) and password, you will automatically be directed to a page that lists all the questions that have been posted for lawyers to answer.
You will notice that the questions are coded by flags. These flags lets you know how long each question has been in the queue. Questions with red-outline flags are those that have been posted for more than 10 days and questions with filled-in red flags are questions that have been in the queue for at least 25 days and will be closed if no lawyer is able to answer them. Questions that are not answered within 30 days will be closed and the client will be notified.
You have three ways in which to view questions in the queue:
- You can view a list of all the questions in the queue; this is the default view.
- You can view a list of questions that have been in the queue for 25 days or longer by clicking on the “Importance” option under the "Sort" button.
- You can view questions by legal categories by clicking on the “Filter” button.
- You can easily view any question you have taken to answer by clicking "Home" on the menu and looking at questions in your personal queue.
The client is asked to use the Subject line to tell you, in their own words, what the question is about (for example, eviction, divorce, bankruptcy, etc.). The Category and Subject functions are tools to help lawyers quickly decide which questions they would like to review and answer.
Selecting Questions You Want to Answer
You can read the first few lines of each posted question by clicking the "Preview" button. If you decide you want to see more details of the question, click the subject to be taken to the question detail page. When you have found a question you’d like to answer, click the “I want to answer this question” button on the bottom of the question detail page. If you eventually decide you do not want to take a question you can click the "I want to return this question" to send it back to the full queue. You can also decide if you want to answer a question immediately by clicking "Answer Now" or answer the question later by clicking "Answer Later". Please respond within 3 days of taking a question. If you fail to respond within 3 days, the question will be moved back into the queue.
Once you have taken the question, you will be able to reply to the client and provide an answer or ask follow up questions. The client will not know your identity unless you choose to provide it. If you ask the client a question, you will receive an email when the client responds and a prompt to log back into the website to respond.
How Do I Subscribe to a Category?
If your area of practice is specialized and you only want to answer certain types of questions, you can subscribe to a Category and receive an email notification each time a question in that particular Category is posted.
To subscribe to a Category (for example, immigration), click on the “Manage Subscriptions” tab at the top of the screen. Scroll down to the Category you are interested in and click on the red circle. When the red circle changes to a check mark, you have successfully subscribed to that category. You may also choose where you want to get subscription emails. To change it from your username email, click on your email address next to the green check and enter your different email address. Click the save icon to save your email address. You can unsubscribe at any time.
How do I contact the administrator with a question?
If you have a question or run into a technical problem with the site, you may contact the administrator by e-mailing the Virginia.freelegalanswers.org site administrator (email@example.com ).